The U.S. immigrant detention system causes despair, fractures families, violates human rights standards and lessens national prestige, a Catholic report said.

A joint report issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) following a series of visits to immigrant detention centers in Texas, California, Illinois, Arizona and New Jersey set forth these and other assertions.

The U.S. detention system has grown “from roughly 85,000 persons in 1995 to 440,557 in 2013,” reaching record levels under the Obama administration.

While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cannot formally imprison, they can detain persons, sometimes for lengthy periods.

Detention “brands immigrants as criminals in the public’s eye and contributes to the sense that they deserve to be treated as such,” the report said, while also making it difficult for detained persons to receive legal aid.

The bishops affirmed “the authority and responsibility of sovereign states to regulate migration in furtherance of the common good” and noted that short-term detentions were, at times, necessary.

Nevertheless, they urged an end to lengthy detentions, in general, and to detention of children and families, in particular, noting harmful effects on youth, such as “anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, regression in academic achievement and language development, social withdrawal and post-traumatic stress.”

The report critiqued the use of detention as an immigration management tool, stating that it was not cost effective and should “not be used to deter illegal immigration or refugee-like flows, or as a means to evade U.S. sovereign responsibilities to protect those who have fled persecution.”

Detention should be considered only “as a last resort when less harmful strategies and programs … are exhausted.”

Suggested alternatives to detention included supervised release programs aided by community organizations, which would be less costly and increase the likelihood of persons appearing at subsequent court hearings.

An open letter prefaced the report, noting that the bishops were engaging migrant detention “not so much as a public policy issue, but as pastors concerned with the well-being of those we love and serve.”

The letter lamented the division of families as well as the reality that persons “who represent no threat or danger … are nonetheless treated as criminals.”

The U.S. immigrant detention system currently “contributes to the misconception that immigrants are criminals and a threat to our unity, security and well-being,” the letter asserted.

This contrasts sharply with “the Gospel imperative to protect the rights of refugees, to promote the reunification of families and to honor the dignity of all persons, whatever their status.”

The full USCCB/CMS report is available here.

Editor’s note: “Gospel Without Borders,”’s documentary on faith and immigration, bringing more light and less heat to the issue and featuring prominently a Catholic bishop as well as Baptist and other faith leaders, is available here. Additional resources related to immigration are available here.

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